Bob's Gutsy Leadership Blog

Trustworthy? How Can You Tell?

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, the topic of who you can trust was discussed.  The author began with an example of an individual at a consulting firm who was trying to land a big contract with a customer.  That contract was worth about $12 million but the customer indicated they could pay only $10 million but that if the contract was signed there were excellent long term prospects to do more work together but that customer couldn’t commit to that in writing.  Here is the question: Is the customer trustworthy or not?

There has been decades of research on this topic.  The findings show that people’s accuracy in determining trustworthiness is only slightly better than chance.  On the other hand, the research verifies that the following three suggestions can be helpful in trying to determine the trustworthiness of an individual.

1.) Remember That an Individual’s Integrity Can Vary by Circumstance – Many of us believe that people are either trustworthy or not.  This is not the case and it has been verified by many psychologists doing extensive experiments.  Instead, trustworthiness seems to be somewhat dependent on whether the outcome can impact them.  Net, if you are trying to judge trustworthiness, think about whether the individual you are about to bet on will really have “skin in the game,” that is, will they be impacted by the outcome of the issue being discussed.

2.)Beware: Confidence Can Mask Incompetence – Just because an individual seems smooth and polished doesn’t mean they are competent.  Unfortunately, people are much more willing to trust individuals who look confident and dress very well as confirmed by a British Columbia researcher.  On the other hand, the author makes it very clear that the best way to assess competence is to do extensive homework.

3.) Face-to-Face Personal Interactions Are Helpful – Experiments at Cornell University and MIT filmed people having brief “get to know” conversations either face to face or online before they played a game involving monetary transactions and the exchange of information to improve the performance of those transactions.  The individuals who had face to face conversations with the individuals they were about to play with were significantly more accurate in judging trustworthiness than those that simply talked to the individual and exchanged information online.

In summary, deciding trustworthiness is a difficult task.  On the other hand, the extensive research that is cited makes it clear that the points above are certainly worth internalizing.

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